A number of grocery stores and tech vendors have piloted delivery robots over the last few years, some autonomous, some remote controlled. Now one company is looking at the convenience store space as the sweet spot.
Robotics startup Tortoise is expanding its footprint and will be furnishing 500 convenience stores nationwide with remote control delivery robots to facilitate same-day, last-mile delivery, according to TechCrunch. The company’s delivery robots have already been leveraged, through partnerships, with grocery store chain ShopRite and tech-savvy hybrid grocer/convenience store Choice Market in Denver, CO.
“Retailers are in a food fight to lead with speed,” wrote BrainTrust panelist Lisa Goller, content marketing strategist, in an online discussion last week on RetailWire. “In the near future, ultra-fast grocery delivery will be commonplace. Now c-stores need robots to keep their convenience advantage.”
A delivery device drives down a sidewalk outside the Washington Capitol in Olympia, Wash., on ... [+] Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. Lawmakers are considering a regulatory bill that would allow delivery robots on sidewalks. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)ASSOCIATED PRESS
Other members of the BrainTrust similarly saw promise in this new robotic use case.
“Delivery robots are well-suited to convenience stores, which consumers tend to use for essential items that are needed quickly,” wrote Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData. “Unless they charge a premium or a full delivery fee, those stores often don’t have the volumes or margins to make last-mile delivery particularly profitable… That said, these robots are clearly suited to high density, urban areas due to their limited range and slower speeds.”
Customer demand for delivery has grown across retail sectors in recent years with online grocery ordering experiencing an unprecedented spike at the beginning of the pandemic. Studies show that the convenience store space has been as impacted by increased demand, as well.
A study from late 2020 by NACS Research found that 57 percent of stores in the convenience space offer some sort of last-mile fulfillment (including delivery and/or various pickup options), and that the stores that offer such services experience great benefits from doing so.
At least one of the major delivery players has begun looking at convenience stores as a space it can own. DoorDash recently launched a virtual convenience store called DashMart, which features 2,000 grocery items and restaurant-branded items and promises delivery in 30 minutes or less.
Some members of the BrainTrust, however, are skeptical about robots doing the job.
“Shoppers will take convenience however they can get it these days,” wrote Michael La Kier, president of What Brands Want. “However, the days of robots roaming the streets and the sky are not quite here yet. There will be many hurdles to come, but I say, ‘bring it!’”
Delivery robots have continued to raise concerns in some municipalities as to their impact on jobs and also their potential to be public safety hazards. At the same time, however, more effective use cases have been emerging for the robots. A growing number of college campuses are leveraging robots for food delivery to dorms, as an example. Last month, Grubhub GRUB announced that it would be delivering food on the Ohio State University campus by robot, according to Thrillist.
“Robotic delivery in controlled areas like college campuses may make sense, but I can’t imagine it in cities, and certainly not in suburbs or rural areas,” wrote Cathy Hotka, principal at Cathy Hotka & Associates. “And what are the parameters? Would a c-store deliver a $1.50 cup of coffee?”
Some members of the BrainTrust likewise, for various reasons, saw the concept as a non-starter for the convenience space.
“I don’t see robots being used effectively in convenience stores,” wrote Bob Amster, principal at Retail Technology Group. “I would think that the grocery industry would make more effective use of delivery robots because the loads are heavier and the total basket value should be higher than convenience stores also.”
“Wait — convenience store online order?” wrote Lee Peterson, EVP of thought leadership and marketing at WD Partners. “Is that an oxymoron, or what? Isn’t it ‘convenient’ because A.) it’s close by and B.) I can just run in and get something? I am all for testing the most outside-the-box stuff, but this? Gotta draw the line somewhere.”